As a film reviewer, it’s probably a mistake to confess to not having seen the work of a certain esteemed director. There's a risk of readers questioning credentials. But alas – aside from last year's short film The Human Voice, based on the Jean Cocteau play and starring Tilda Swinton – Pedro Almodóvar is a glaring cinematic blind spot for this critic. Parallel Mothers, then, is a feature-length entrance to his colourful body of work.
Unfortunately, despite there obviously being an auteur behind the lens, Almodóvar’s 21st film reacts like a glorified yet entertaining soap opera – punctuated by incongruous importance. It’s perhaps not the film to kick off a potential love for one of Spain’s most respected filmmakers.
That sense of importance is a political one, and clunkily shapes the structure of the film. Penélope Cruz plays Janis, a photographer wanting to excavate a burial site from the Spanish Civil War with the hope of finding her great-grandfather. Janis enlists one of her clients, the anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde), to help. They get close and have sex and, before you can blink, Janis is suffering during contractions in an antenatal ward.
With the responsibilities tied to a new child, the prospects of a dig uncovering Spain’s violent past keep fading and returning. Almodóvar becomes more concerned with Janis’ motherhood and that of the young Ana (Milena Smit), with whom she forms a friendship that grows into something deeper and more complicated.
Parallel Mothers turns into a vaguely mythical swapped-at-birth story, which burdens Janis as she cares for her child. Big twists arrive in slow waves, as if Almodóvar is trying to hide their soap-y frequency. Even with the mothers' middle-class lifestyles (decorated with brilliant clothing choices), every revelation could be soundtracked with the EastEnders theme music. But this is undeniably fun, especially as the scenes between the shocks turn slightly tiring.
As Janis and Ana’s relationship develops, you realise they have a curious potential. Cruz and Smit have understated chemistry, their characters possessing similar levels of maturity despite the age gap.
Janis attempts to ignore hard realities, which always threaten to rise. Ana’s childhood around a broken marriage, in which her mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) pursues a semi-deluded dream of being an actress, has forced her to grow up fast. But Ana maintains a certain youthful edge and naivety. Even if they themselves aren’t especially gripping, the mothers' dynamic – stirred with a surprising plot – eventually entices.
The political slant, resumed at the end with a surreal vision followed by a heavy-handed quote, feels incidental. The middle act is tied up so easily, as if to ensure the film reaches that final image. There’s no denying that Almodóvar cares a lot about Spain’s oppressive history and how it is remembered, but little of that passes into the main thrust of the story. It’s an important message, one he’s clearly bursting to say, but Parallel Mothers isn’t the right film with which to express it.
Parallel Mothers will be in UK cinemas on Friday 28 January.
|What||Parallel Mothers review|
28 Jan 22 – 28 Jan 23, IN CINEMAS
|Price||£determined by cinemas|
|Website||Click here for more information|